September 24, 2004

Little Green Apples at the Blue Moon Bar

Fresh Air "critic-at-large" John Powers, discussing Rathergate yesterday, said:

The first doubts came from conservative blogs with colorful names like "Free Republic" and "Little Green Apples".

Uh, that's "Little Green Footballs".

Complaining about the faults of weblogs, Powers observes that

Some shriek "gotcha!" at tiny factual errors in articles written on short deadlines by people who actually have to leave the house to do their work.

There's no evidence that Power did much pounding the pavements in researching his commentary. Anyhow, more expenditure of shoe leather wouldn't have helped him to make a correct attribution of the name of the weblog that made the first convincing case for the CBS memos being forged. That's just a matter of elementary care with relevant facts.

Power condescendingly allows that

Although I myself work in print, and am far too lazy to have a blog of my own, I must say that American political culture is far better for this explosion of lively political voices.

Apparently he's also too lazy to deal with details like the actual names of publications -- or does he count on his editors at Vogue (where he's now the film critic) to fix things up if he writes "Leonard Cohen" when he means "Leonard Bernstein", or "Alfred Prufrock" when he means "Alfred Hitchcock"?

A better known representative of the ancien regime, Lewis Lapham, was less gracious to weblogs when interviewed Wednesday by Marcie Sillman on the Weekday radio show:

Sillman: We've had several listeners email in uh- uh- going back to the idea of- of media, asking you what you think about blogs, whether the information that- that has come out on various blogs is- is valuable, is reliable, is something that people should turn to.

Lapham: I don't know enough about blogs. I- I don't scan the Internet and the- so- but I I- guess as a source for clues, or for leads, uh for let's say a newspaper, or a m- Harper's Magazine's a monthly, so we're not into the timely news, might prove useful, but I'm sure it would be very difficult to learn which ones are worthwhile, and which one- I'm sure there- there are a lot of them that are uh simply uh the equivalent of scratching your name on the men's room wall of the, you know, Blue Moon Bar. I've-

Sillman: Have you been there? It's just down the street!

[both laugh]

And that's the end of that question.

Lapham's own reputation for journalistic reliability recently took a hit when he described the speeches at the Republican national convention in an edition of his magazine that was mailed to subscribers several weeks before the convention took place. So of course those finicky bloggers did their gotcha-shrieking thing in response to this tiny factual error, despite the fact that Lapham was writing on deadline and was planning to actually leave his house to attend the convention. Lapham was honest and smart enough to apologize right away, though he explained the fault as a matter of poetic license and mixing up tenses.

I've never visited any of the many Blue Moon Bars that Google finds around the world, but I've read a lot of graffiti over the years, and I don't recall ever having seen a verb-tense error. I'll confess, though, that poetic license has long been as rampant in that medium as it apparently is now at Harper's.

As far as blogs are concerned, you just have to make your own judgment about which ones are worthwhile, based on your experience with the source. That seems to me quite a lot like making a judgment about a magazine article or a radio commentator, and quite different from evaluating restroom graffiti.

[Update 9/29/2004: Here's a relevant discussion by NPR's Ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin. Key quote:

First, we must acknowledge that the blogs have truly arrived. It is hard for journalists who have led a sheltered life without public accountability to acknowledge that those days are over.

Second, it will be tough for ombudsmen and women to admit that their unique role as overseers on behalf of the public is also changing. We need to make room on the bench and give the bloggers a place at the dinner table. The question remains: who's for dinner?

NPR listeners have always been quick to point out our errors and lapses, and in a non-partisan way. The blogs are different because many are explicitly political. It will be interesting to see if the "blogosphere" still has as much impact on mainstream journalism once the election is over.

But blogs are also different because they have an independent way to reach the public, not subject to the control of NPR or any other institution.



Posted by Mark Liberman at September 24, 2004 09:32 PM